Women's Health

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:05 pm on 10th June 1988.

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Photo of Mrs Gillian Shephard Mrs Gillian Shephard , South West Norfolk 1:05 pm, 10th June 1988

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in this debate and equally glad that it is taking place in this Chamber, which focuses all too infrequently on matters of exclusive concern to women. I congratulate the Minister on initiating this debate.

I should like to focus—perhaps more narrowly than other hon. Members—upon the current issues of cancer screening and well woman clinics. I should also like to mention the traditionally included specialisms of maternity and family planning and broader issues that are of particular interest to those who are practically involved in Health Service work—the way in which services that benefit women are delivered and health promotion and education specifically geared to women.

Funding is not the most important element in the successful promotion of women's health, but the way in which available funds are used is important. I am concerned about the effect that local professional enthusiasm may have either positively or negatively on the way in which women's health is regarded.

There should be a combination of Government initiatives and good work at local level, which stems from the health authorities or family practitioner committees as well as the involvement of other relevant local statutory and voluntary agencies. Obviously women must accept that their health is as important as the health of their families and they must accept that responsibility. The private sector must be involved, but most importantly, there must be professional enthusiasm for the cause.

It is useful to consider what has been done by the Government to promote women's health. Obviously the Government can act not only by directly funding their own initiatives, but by pump-priming and initiating others' efforts. The most recent Government-funded initiative—it has had considerable airing this morning—has been the introduction of computerised call and recall systems for cervical cancer testing and the imminent introduction of mammography services. The introduction of the computerised cervical cancer testing system cost £10 million and involved an enormous amount of effort by Health Service staff to computerise many millions of manual records. When we last discussed the system during the passage of the Health and Medicines Bill, some hon. Members, notably Opposition Members, expressed their concern about the way in which the scheme was falling short. To redress the balance, I should like to illustrate the successful way in which that system is operating to serve the health authorities of my constituency.

In the area served by the Norfolk family practitioner committee as a whole, we had our computerised system of call and recall up and running by September, seven months before the Government deadline. The West Norfolk and Wisbech health authority has since January had a system of recall every three years for all women between the ages of 18 and 66, and of call every three years for all women between 35 and 66. The laboratory turn around is four weeks.

The Norwich health authority also serves part of north-west Norfolk, and its recall operates for women between the ages of 20 and 34 every three years. For women between the ages of 35 and 66, it operates every five years, and the call operates for women between 35 and 66 every five years. The laboratory turn around is just over four weeks despite the enormous increase in the amount of work with which the laboratories have had to deal.

While these authorities offer three-year periods of call, they are correctly concentrating their major efforts on getting an increased response to first-time call-out which in East Anglia as a whole is presently 40 per cent. That is not yet good enough, but there is a very good proportion of older women.